Organic vs. Conventional Farming – Which Favors Cleaner Water?

In a 2011 study conducted by the University of Vermont, stemming from clean water issues in revered Lake Champlain, results were inconclusive as to whether organic farming or conventional farming practices favor a cleaner lake.

What is suggested is, all other things being equal, the rigidity of organic farming standards (some of which are noted below) lend themselves to better land management practices – which may have a positive impact in reducing the nutrient (see: manure) runoff that is largely responsible for Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs). Some standards mentioned are:

  • All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors, including access to pasture for ruminants. They may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety,
    the animal’s stage of production, or to protect soil or water quality.

    Beyond Clean Water: Organic Farms Command Higher Retail Prices.
    Beyond Clean Water: Organic Farms Command Higher Retail Prices.
  • Land must have no prohibited substances applied to it for at least 3 years before the harvest of an organic crop.
  • Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials.

According to the study, a challenge the organic farmer with animals faces, which a conventional farmer may not, is keeping pastured animals from directly wading into streams and lakes — instantly polluting the water.

  • For grazing animals it is important to regulate the extent to which the cows interact with natural waterways. Where livestock have access to these waters there is an increased risk of nutrient losses to surface water.

Clearly the motivation to go organic in farming extends beyond better land management — and the chart above illustrates the financial incentive that may accompany such a move — but there appears to be little doubt that agriculture runoff remains a chief contributor to pollution in Lake Champlain. This is largely consistent across the USA, wherever clean water issues arise.

 

 

Private Regulation of WI Farm Operations Ill-advised

At a time when the number of  factory farms has risen precipitously, cutting regulatory staff tasked to ensure these operations remain compliant with regulations is a curious, questionable move.  But, in WI, this is precisely the what is happening.

According to a recent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, pressure to reduce budgets has resulted in a 18% reduction in staff at the WI Department of Natural Resources, since 1995. This, while the number of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permits in WI has more than doubled in the past decade.

cafograph_lg-2Even more troubling? Fines for pollution in WI hit a 30-year low in 2015.

Several counties in WI are struggling with — perhaps suffering under is a more appropriate description — massive increases in dairy cows in their region, and the incredibly large amounts of manure these herds create. Kewaunee County, as has been mentioned numerous times in prior blogs here, is perhaps the best current example.

While nobody argues the value of manure as a valuable source of fertilizer for farm operations, it is also clear that manure is a primary contributor to non-point pollution which results in devastating algae blooms as seen annually in Lake Erie, Lake Okeechobee, and many other rivers, streams and lakes across the USA.

Wisconsin lawmakers suggest that cooperative regulation will make the process more efficient, less costly, and will result in better practices resulting in decreased pollution, etc.

Perhaps.

But just as likely, if not even more so, is that environmental costs in the form of contaminated ground water, surface water dead zones, algae blooms, and the inherent health risks within area communities, will far outweigh whatever meager savings and questionable efficiencies are attained.

Resources like CWAC, CWA, can only help the HAB cause.

I recently joined a terrific organization, Clean Water Action Council (CWAC) of Northeast WI, which provides superb content for anyone interested in clean water in Wisconsin – in all its forms. Ground, surface, non-point (runoff from communities and agriculture, etc.), and more. For 31 years, CWAC has been working to support legislature, and calling attention to issues that have an impact on clean water in and around Green Bay, WI, including the Fox River Valley, Kewaunee County, and Door County.

CAFO operation - Kewaunee County, WI
CAFO operation – Kewaunee County, WI

Since this area of the Midwest is one that is deeply – and seemingly negatively –  impacted by a wild increase in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), CWAC is a great example of a local group making a difference, and they are not alone.

Indeed, on its site CWAC offers information links and tools that can even extend beyond its target area. An example:

Who are your local water polluters?

Two national websites provide detailed data about pollution sources in local communities. Just type in your zip code and you may find more than you really wanted to know!

The Scorecard, by Environmental Defense http://www.scorecard.org/

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency http://iaspub.epa.gov/triexplorer/tri_release.chemical

For more information: http://dnr.wi.gov/wnrmag/html/stories/2003/feb03/pbde.htm

On a national level, Clean Water Action (CWA) works to promote clean water and a healthy environment, via its network of state organizations.

What does it all mean? Good news — and terrific resources —  for any interested in becoming involved with, or educated about, clean water initiatives.

Hurricane Matthew: Southeast Florida Vulnerable

Within hours, Hurricane Matthew will smash its Category 4 chaos on the narrow, flat peninsula that is the State of Florida. And here I sit, safe from this destructive powerhouse about which many in my area remain blissfully unaware; writing from my porch in tiny West Bend, WI. Despite this distance, what I know from research is that, while the evacuation of humans from the highest-risk areas may prove effective in saving lives, in every other way Florida cannot possibly be ready for this.

Category 4 is massive. It has been over 100 years since a Category 4 hurricane hit Florida.

Hurricane Matthew Slams Into Bahamas
Hurricane Matthew Slams Into Bahamas

And that was the ONLY time.

The deadliest hurricane on record happened in Galveston, TX, in 1900. That hurricane? Category 4.  To add perspective, Hurricane Katrina — infamous for its horrific explosion on the City of New Orleans — was Category 3.

The only Category 5 hurricane to hit the USA was Andrew, in 1992. Fortunately for Florida, Andrew did not dump loads of rain. Why? Because the dikes holding back Lake Okeechobee can handle heavy winds and fallen trees. Excessive amounts of rainfall? Not so much.

According to Lloyds Emerging Risk Team, Southest Florida’s Lake Okeechobee – roughly the size of Rhode Island —  is the second most hurricane-vulnerable place in the United States, right behind New Orleans. Eventually, the Lake’s dikes can contain only so much water.

Currently, according to Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Lake Okeechobee’s depth sits at near-record averages of about 15.5 feet:

“Okeechobee water levels continue at almost record highs after an extremely wet summer and fall. The current water level on Lake Okeechobee as of September 25, 2016 is 15.66 ft. NGVD, just over a foot higher than last year. The lake level has increased almost a foot within the last month.”

Hurricane Matthew will drop at least 7″ of rain into the Lake, causing a rise of perhaps 2-feet. It is possible Matthew will pour 10″ or more — and that could create as much as a 3-foot rise.

The lowest of Okeechobees dikes rests at slightly higher than 18 feet — uncomfortably low with Hurricane Matthew approaching, according John Campbell of the Army Corp of Engineers.

Parts of the Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee start to become vulnerable at 17.5 feet, Campbell noted. 

“Certainly our concern all year is what happens if we get a lot of precipitation and the lake level rises,” Campbell said. “A (rise over 17 feet) would take us to areas where historically we’ve had some challenges and it’s certainly something we’d like to avoid.”

An unfortunate byproduct of Hurricane Matthew may be that the historic HABs (Harmful Algae Blooms) of 2016, which wiped out most of Southeast Florida’s Gold Coast tourist season, will repeat themselves in 2017. Hundreds of millions in tourist dollars will again be at stake.

For area businesses who rely on tourist trade, this loss of income would clearly be devastating.

That said, if Matthew causes a breech to a significant piece of the Lake Okeechobee dike — and this possibility is at present razor-thin close — Southeast Florida will be looking at a disaster reminiscent to what we saw in New Orleans, with Hurricane Katrina.

In two days, we’ll know.